Perhaps moreso than any other living director, Wong Kar-Wai excels at capturing the ephemeral feeling of falling in love on film. From this, his 1994 break-out through last year's tepidly received My Blueberry Nights, the Hong Kong auteur effortlessly blends image and sound to create tactile portraits of longing that stand as stylish works of art, arguably unparalleled in modern cinema.
Chungking Express, a film that Wong used as a breather from his period martial arts epic Ashes of Time (a film he revisited earlier in 2008), is one of the great films of the '90s. As oblique as it is sweetly naive, the film lingers like a personal memory long after its final frames have faded and has, at last, been given new life via the Criterion Collection.
Using a pair of stories that ever-so-slightly overlap, Wong, who penned the original screenplay, tells the stories of a pair of Hong Kong cops, each struggling to forget women in their lives. Underlying these tales of romantic yearning is a glimpse inside the bustling Chungking Mansions, a sprawling market/hostel space located in southern Hong Kong. As with his other films, Wong provides an almost tangible sense of space, filling every frame with details that only enhance the experience. It's as though the cluttered aesthetic of, say, Blade Runner (minus all of the futuristic trappings, of course) was transposed onto a swooning love story from the Forties.
The first 40 minutes or so, viewers watch as He Qiwu -- aka Cop 223 -- (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pine for his girlfriend May (who is never seen onscreen). May left him on April Fool's Day and Cop 223 is convinced that if she doesn't return by May 1, his birthday, their relationship is over. To mark each passing day, he buys a can of pineapple, making sure each can is set to expire on May 1. As the days pass, Cop 223 finds himself drawn to pursuing a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) who is herself embroiled in a drug smuggling operation. Cop 223 keeps one foot in his withering relationship with May, continuing to buy cans of pineapple, while slowly falling for the curious woman with many secrets behind her dark sunglasses.
The second half of the film, which takes up the bulk of the running time, chronicles the tentative romance of Cop 663 (frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung), himself reeling from a break-up with an unnamed flight attendant (Valerie Chow). Walking the beat near the Midnight Express food stand, Cop 663 soon strikes up a tenuous relationship with the adorable Faye (Faye Wong). Faye soon falls for Cop 663, acquires a break-up letter from the flight attendant and rather than pass it along, elects to use the key to surreptitiously break into the policeman's apartment, helping spruce up what she perceives as his dreary existence.
While the first piece of the film has a wonderfully luminous, dream-like quality to it (the scenes of Cop 223 eating room service while his mystery love slumbers on the bed feel torn from real life), it's the Cop 663/Faye relationship that grounds the film and provides its most indelible moments. Wong leans heavily on fusing images and sound, playing the Mamas and the Papas' timeless "California Dreamin'" repeatedly throughout this portion and adding in a Cantonese cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams," to spectacular effect. These two tunes are wedded to the visuals in a way that might make it difficult to hear either song in quite the same way ever again.
The cast is uniformly excellent -- Faye Wong, in particular, manages to evoke Audrey Hepburn more than once -- and the sumptuous cinematography from Wong's trusted DP Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau, which evolves from light-streaked blurs (the opening sequences in Chungking Mansions' busy thoroughfares are astonishing in their realism) into tender, hand-held intrusions upon stolen moments.
As critic Amy Taubin notes in her essay about the film (included with this release), Chungking Express owes a great deal to Jean-Luc Godard's jump-cut brand of hopeless romanticism and, indeed, you're left feeling a powerful connection to the early Sixties French New Wave by the time the credits roll on this, the opening salvo of Asia's cinematic renaissance of the Nineties. It's not for nothing that Quentin Tarantino, flush from the success of Pulp Fiction, snapped up this film for North American release in 1994; its blend of heart-on-sleeve pathos, carefully chosen pop soundtrack and occasional bursts of violence would seem to speak to his soul.
While I've spelled out most of the plot for Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, I don't feel as though I've ruined the experience in any way. Knowing the plot ahead of time does nothing to diminish the pleasure that will undoubtedly come from losing yourself in the sensual delights of one of the greatest films from the Nineties. Love can blossom in the most unexpected places at the most surprising times; as the inimitable Wong Kar-Wai demonstrates, you must have a very careful eye to capture that as it happens.
Presented in a restored, high-def 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer supervised by Wong Kar-Wai, this image exhibits the characteristic softness that Asian films from the late Eighties and early Nineties tend to display, but it's also worth remembering that Wong, working with cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau, employed a deliberately gauzy, staccato style that has been carefully preserved here. Not having the previous 2002 Miramax release available (although, from my research, it's clear that the Criterion disc has restored the proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio), I can't speak as to whether this image has been improved in any way.
Another upgrade over the 2002 Miramax disc is the inclusion of a wonderfully alive Dolby Digital 5.1 track that tends to keep the dialogue and much of the sonic action spread across the front soundstage, but opens up to delightful effect whenever the Cantonese-flavored cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams" or the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" kicks in. It's terrifically immersive and pulls the viewer deeper into Wong's world. The track is presented in its original Cantonese and Mandarin, with optional English subtitles (which, according to the case, are "new and improved").
Falling on the less stacked end of the Criterion spectrum, the supplements that are included are nevertheless essential for fans of the film and Wong Kar-Wai's work. (The 2002 Miramax disc, from what I can tell, had only Quentin Tarantino commentary before and after the feature, neither of which survived to this disc.) Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns contributes a warm, insightful commentary track, in keeping with his previous stellar work for the Criterion Collection. He notes the biographical aspects of Wong's film, as well as the film's deliberate structure. A 12 minute, 10 second episode of British TV series "Moving Pictures" from 1996 (presented in fullscreen) is included. It's an atmospheric little vignette and features Wong and co-cinematographer Christopher Doyle discussing the film in the very market in which it was shot. The film's U.S. theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is included, as is a 14-page booklet which contains an exceptional essay from film critic Amy Taubin and a list of credits.
Perhaps moreso than any other living director, Wong Kar-Wai excels at capturing the ephemeral feeling of falling in love on film. From this, his 1994 break-out through last year's tepidly received My Blueberry Nights, the Hong Kong auteur effortlessly blends image and sound to create tactile portraits of longing that stand as stylish works of art, arguably unparalleled in modern cinema. Chungking Express, a film that Wong used as a breather from his period martial arts epic Ashes of Time (a film he revisited earlier in 2008), is one of the great films of the '90s. As oblique as it is sweetly naive, the film lingers like a personal memory long after its final frames have faded and has, at last, been given new life via the Criterion Collection. Highly recommended.